Two weeks ago, I reported on a recent visit to Future World's Spaceship Earth, The Universe of Energy, and Test Track, looking at each attraction from a historical perspective as well as through the eyes of today's visitors. While I still contend that the original versions of these Imagineering classics far outshine anything that has come afterword, I admit that there is much to like about today's incarnations of these Epcot experiences.
Today, come along with me as we conclude our visit with a stop at the attractions located in Future World West, specifically The Living Seas, The Land, and Journey into Imagination.
The Living Seas/The Seas with Nemo and Friends
The original Living Seas, opened in 1986, strove for authenticity and realism. After viewing a short film simply entitled "The Sea," visitors to The Living Seas boarded an elevator called a "hydrolater" before sitting down in a Seacab that took them along an underwater tunnel through a huge aquarium. Guests disembarked at Sea Base Alpha, the central exhibit area to view sea creatures, interact with educational exhibits, and to listen to scientists and divers talk about the seas as well as the creatures that call the seas "home."
While the goal was realism, the original attraction fell short on several levels. For one thing, the opening film was not especially engaging. Eventually, Disney made the film optional, allowing guests to freely move on to the "ride" portion of the attraction. The hydrolater was another problem. While the concept of taking guests "below" was a good one, the execution was problematic. Hot, crowded, and not at all convincing, the hydrolaters were an unconvincing combination of the worst elements of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mission to Mars at the Magic Kingdom. The actual exhibit area was wonderful, clearly the highlight of the pavilion.
From 2003 to 2007, The Living Seas was transformed into its current incarnation as The Seas with Nemo and Friends. In many ways, this experience—while not as authentic or scientific as the original—is far more entertaining and eliminates those awkward "realistic" moments with pure fantasy in an educational and engaging way.
The main "ride" here is based on the Disney-Pixar film Finding Nemo, and follows the basic plotline of that well-known film. After journeying through a very long circuitous queue that gives the illusion of being underwater, guests board "Clamobiles" taking them through the Nemo story as well as the huge Disney created aquarium. Using a newly developed projection system, images from the animated film are seamlessly interwoven with the actual sea creatures living in the aquarium.
Sea Base Alpha is still home to a variety of exhibits, presentations, interactive stations, as well as human presenters and speakers. It is also home to world-class aquariums that give visitors an up-close-and–personal look at sea creatures and sometimes human divers interacting with them. It is also home to the immensely popular Turtle Talk with Crush, a show that is as appealing to adults as it is to children. While grownups sit on padded benches, children are invited to sit on the floor in front of a large movie screen. Crush, as well as a human Cast Member, interact with children—Crush answers questions, calls children by name, and responds "live" to the Cast Member and to audience members alike. It is a charming, memorable show.
The Seas with Nemo and Friends is the one update to a Future World classic that, in my humble opinion, outshines the original. It manages to entertain and educate, charm and inform, delight and challenge—the exact ideals that EPCOT Center originally fostered.
One of Future World's original pavilions when the park opened in 1982, The Land plays host to several attractions and several restaurants as well. The original design, from 1982 to 1992, was sponsored by Kraft and featured a boat ride, Listen to the Land, a film entitled "Symbiosis," a restaurant, and an audio-animatronic show called "Kitchen Kabaret."
The original film, "Symbiosis," looked at man's complex and interconnected relationship with the earth. This film was replaced in 1995 with The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable, which kept the spirit of the original film and added characters from Disney's widely popular film, The Lion King.
This update, like the one at the Living Seas, irked many longtime Epcot fans. They felt that the integrity of the EPCOT vision was compromised with the inclusion of cartoon characters. While there is definably merit in that overall concern, The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable adheres to the goal of educating while entertaining, even if it does so in a more user-friendly way.
The signature attraction, Listen to the Land, featured a boat ride through Disney created environments such as the rainforest, the Great Plains, and the American farm. It concluded with a visit to the immense greenhouses where actual research was conducted on plant and animal production. The original featured actual cast members on board as hosts, as well as a wonderful song entitled, appropriately enough, "Listen to the Land."
When The Land received its first makeover in the mid 1990s, this attraction was renamed "Living with the Land" and remained virtually unchanged (although, sadly, the song was removed). In 2009, an automated system was installed and the "live" cast members were unfortunately replaced with a pre-recorded audio track.
The Land's third original attraction, the clever audio-animatronic show called "Kitchen Kabaret," featured a cast of endearing members of the various food groups who provided a memorable and tuneful lesson in good nutrition. This show was updated to the very tacky Food Rocks in 1994. This regrettable attraction represents all that was terrible about that unfortunate era when Disney tried to be "hip" and "relevant"—ignoring the fact that timeless and classis are always relevant.
In 1995, Food Rocks made way for Soarin', one of present-day Epcot's most memorable and popular experiences. This award-winning attraction, originally conceived for Disney California Adventure park, gives riders a simulated experience of hang gliding over some of California's natural and artificial landmarks. It is truly one of Epcot's most stunning experiences.
In many ways, this spirit of this pavilion embodies Epcot's goals, original and present day. There are thrills in Soarin', educational elements in Living with the Land, serious conservation issues in The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable, and good food at the Sunshine Seasons and the Garden Grille Restaurant. We enjoyed all of the attractions here and look forward to exploring them again soon.
Journey into Imagination
In a recent piece highlighting the announcement from Marvel and Disney Kingdoms that a new series featuring Figment and the Dreamfinder will premiere this June. In it, I provided a short history of this pavilion:
"When EPCOT Center opened its gates to the world in 1982, guests were greeted by boundless optimism and never-before-seen wonders. Two of Epcot's most famous characters, however, did not make their appearance until 1983. These beloved characters, created by Disney especially for Epcot, were an integral part of the EPCOT experience until 1998.
For 15 years, Dreamfinder, along with his dragon-like friend Figment, entertained guests in Audio-Animatronic form in the Journey into Imagination attraction housed in the two glass pyramids located near the Land pavilion in Future World and in person near the ‘Jellyfish Fountains' located outside. After the debacle of the 1999 Journey into YOUR Imagination, a Figment-free renovation that generated mountains of guest complaints, the attraction reopened in 2002 as Journey into Imagination with Figment. While Dreamfinder is still absent (and replaced with a filmed host played by Eric Idle), Figment returned, as did the wonderful Richard and Robert Sherman song entitled "One Little Spark," complete with additional verses. While the current version is in no way shape or form as charming as the first, Figment's return was a welcome one indeed."
The current version is entertaining, albeit technically unspectacular. Figment's impish charm goes a long way in making this a fun attraction for small children, and while the activities featured after the ride are in no way as stunning as those found in the old Image Works, there are ample diversions to keep little explorers busy for an extended amount of time. The return of Captain EO, however, is less successful for a variety of reasons. Still, it was a nostalgic blast from the past and reminded me of EPCOT visits as a member of the Walt Disney World College Program back in the day. The kids liked the "creatures" and the last song, "We Are Here to Change the World."
At the end of the day, however, this entire attraction needs updating. The color scheme is chaotic, the ride unimaginative, the film, dated, and the experiences limited. This pavilion has so much potential—here's hoping the new Figment series is a hit and leads to a reimagined, reinvented imagination pavilion.
My family and I were able to create a few new "magic moments" in one of my favorite parks this past spring break. Our time spent in Future World's reimagined attractions was time well spent. While the awe and reverence we of the "EPCOT Generation" felt when first entering this Disney marvel of marvels may have been diminished over the years, the overall Epcot experience is still a very good one. Today's Epcot lives up to the promise pronounced on opening day:
To all who come to this Place of Joy, Hope and Friendship—WELCOME
Epcot is inspired by Walt Disney's creative vision. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all.
May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire and, above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.